John Dos Passos (1896-1970)
Contributing Editor: Robert C. Rosen
Classroom Issues and Strategies
The biographies of U.S.A. are slices of history; their broader contexts are alluded to but not spelled out. To appreciate fully the nuances of Dos Passos's language, the significance of his descriptive details, and the force of his sarcasm, a reader needs to know a lot of history.
The teacher probably needs to do some explaining, though he or she should avoid explaining the biographies to death. To appreciate "The Body of an American," students should know something about World War I, which Dos Passos saw and many of his original readers remembered. They should understand such things as the unprecedented carnage of that war (10 million killed and 20 million wounded); the particular brutality of trench warfare; the deeper causes of the war (and of U.S. entry into the war) that lay behind the noble rhetoric; and the irony of racism at home (alluded to in "The Body of an American") and repression of domestic dissent during and after a war fought, Wilson told Congress, because "the world must be made safe for democracy." "The Bitter Drink" is more difficult than "The Body of an American" because its historical sweep is greater. Perhaps assigning (or even reading aloud) a brief sample of Veblen's writing would help; it would at least give students a sense of his approach and style. (See, for example, the title excerpt "The Captain of Industry" in The Portable Veblen, edited by Max Lerner; the last paragraph alone might suffice.)
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
"The Body of an American" is about the waste of war and the public and official cant that surrounds it. These issues should be of interest to students who have friends or relatives facing military service or who are themselves of draft or enlistment age. "The Bitter Drink" is about what it means to be a serious critic of society, to tell the truth and refuse to say "the essential yes." Students soon to begin careers where they may have to compromise their values should find much to discuss.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Since the excerpts included in the anthology represent only about one percent of the U.S.A. trilogy and only one of its four narrative devices (biographies, newsreels, conventional narratives, and the camera eye), teaching these excerpts is very different from teaching U.S.A. Should you find time in the course to read The 42nd Parallel or Nineteen Nineteen or The Big Money, you might discuss with students the relationships among the four narrative devices as well as questions about the nature of fiction and the nature of written history raised by Dos Passos's mixing of real historical figures and fictional characters. If students are reading only "The Body of an American" and/or "The Bitter Drink," you might ask them what role they think such "nonfiction" biography might play in a novel. With "The Body of an American," you might also ask about the effect of Dos Passos's running the opening words together, of his juxtapositions of different kinds of language, and of his Whitmanesque list-making. With "The Bitter Drink," you might discuss how Dos Passos goes about communicating his own attitudes while narrating the life of Veblen.
Though the two excerpts in the text are brief, they should suffice to suggest the radicalism of U.S.A. To students surprised by it, you might explain that such views were not so uncommon during the 1930s (though, for Dos Passos, they came even earlier). At the height of the depression, with no unemployment insurance and meager public relief, over one in four U.S. citizens had no job, and millions more suffered wage cuts and underemployment. People lost all their money in bank failures; families were forced out of their homes and apartments; many went hungry while milk was dumped into rivers and crops were burned to keep up prices. The economic system seemed irrational, and millions marched in protest, fought evictions, joined unions. This was the context of U.S.A. for its original readers.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Almost any other work of fiction from the 1930s might usefully be compared with the excerpts from U.S.A. Alongside "The Body of an American" you might read Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun (1939) or, for contrast, the tight-lipped antiwar fiction in Hemingway's In Our Time (1925). For a powerful contemporary comparison, you might look at Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic's Born on the Fourth of July (1976).
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. With "The Body of an American," you might ask students what kinds of contrasts Dos Passos sets up between the news coverage and political declarations (in smaller print) and the story of John Doe. They'll probably point to such contrasts as the nobility of the rhetoric versus the ugly actuality of war, the superficiality of the reporting versus the depth of human suffering, and the impersonality and abstractness of the public language versus the personal detail in those lists of possible facts about John Doe and in the many biographical particulars that suggest all that went into making the adult human being whose unidentifiable remains are being buried.
2. With "The Bitter Drink," you might ask what Dos Passos means by Veblen's "constitutional inability to say yes" and why Dos Passos makes this "essential yes" a refrain. Veblen's ideas are as much implied as spelled out, and you might ask students to summarize as much of them as they can infer from the biography. You might also ask them to draw connections between those ideas and Veblen's life. Dos Passos sets this life very firmly in its historical context, and students might discuss the whole sweep of history brought to life in the biography and what patterns and recurring themes they see. Students might also speculate on whether there is too much of the apology in Dos Passos's description of his hero's "woman trouble."